Papa’s House

Below is my first ever attempt at a short story – feel free to share any feedback you guys might have! Much appreciated!

Grandfather’s – to me he has always been more fondly known as Papa – house always smelled of pancake batter. Pancakes and orange and vanilla musk from his aftershave. The warm haze of the stove’s steam left me an eager five-year-old, awaiting the sound of the spatula’s spin and the sizzle of butter and cooking oil. Nothing else could beat the privilege he always gave me of topping each pancake with six chocolate chips. In all of his cooking perfection, he always managed to maintain the texture of the chocolate, so that the chips would melt on my tongue rather than in the cushion of pan-heated batter.

And then he would sit. A pile of three pancakes atop a plastic plate, with Aladdin and Jasmine grinning up at me, and a glass of two percent milk that would wash away the excess chocolate smeared on my lips. My feet barely grazed the kitchen floor, dangling and kicking Papa against his right shin as he retrieved his favorite deck of playing cards from across the table. Solitaire, Sam, he would relay to me as he split the deck up into miniature piles. I was always in awe of how he could win every time. I would come to realize that in his frustration he would merely scoop the cards back up and start over, only giving my naïve self the illusion that he continuously won. He had the advantage that I did not learn how to properly play the game until I was eight years old.

The cards, worn and weathered, much like the hands that dealt them, held the story of a thoughtful and precise man that was calculating in everything he did. Which can only explain his precision with those pancakes. I never understood his fascination with those cards until I was far older. Until I understood him as a man that valued stability and those calm and quiet moments that can only be found in a pile of dishes left untouched, sunlight strewn curtains, and 52 pieces of waxed, cardboard paper. Stability and some form of escape from those dirty dishes and the leftover melted butter that would crust along the stove’s burners.

Even in my cotton candy pink pajamas and tangled web of dark hair, I knew that I wanted to be like him. You know how in grade school, you’re always required to write about a “hero” of yours, and all the saps alike – including myself – would pick a family member. He was unfailingly mine. After solitaire, he would put on a record. The same one he played day after day. I may have only been five, but I adored this song. Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers. The harmony would oscillate through the hallway, the percussion would lightly thump against the walls, and then I would hear him sing. I need your love, God speed your love to me... The familiar voice that knew every lyric, every fluctuating tone, and he could sing just as well – if not better – than those Righteous Brothers. Just add that to the list of many reasons why I have always aspired to be like him. For I can barely hold a note to save my life. But just like my grandfather, I knew every word by heart. I still do. I would spin around, my toes indenting the carpet, slow dancing to The Righteous Brothers featuring Narciso Mostasisa.

Three minutes, the music would begin to fade, and like clockwork, Papa would reach into his shirt pocket and pull out a honey-colored handkerchief. I would notice him dab at the corners of his eyes, mini crystals of salt sinking into the handsome lines of his face. Allergies, Sam, he said to me in a reassuring tone. I could hear the scratch of the record player’s needle as it called out to someone to cease its itching ways, and though there was silence, this was not one of our calm and quiet moments. For I could not understand why tears would make a home in such a wonderful man’s eyes.

He would take my hand, it seemed so small in his palm, and whirl me around. My long hair would catch against his arm, and I could see another crease in his face. A soft smile that matched his gentle eyes. The handkerchief found its way back into his shirt pocket, and he would continue to hum our song. Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea… He hummed it just for me – my five-year-old self felt so honored. And like many other things, I would eventually realize he was humming it for her, too. In hopes she was listening.

The sun rose over the sky, baking the living room, where Papa and I sat and watched old Western films. The Alamo was on AMC again, and Papa knew how much I loved the horses, it was one of the many reasons I would sit against his hip on the plastic-laden couch while we waited for lunchtime to beckon. That’s John Wayne, Sam, he told me. And although I was lost in the plotlines of True Grit and Sands of Iwo Jima, I had the best companion for company. A man that would even leave his favorite films behind when I would scurry away whenever a horse was shot. As with everything else, his reassurance that no horsies were actually hurt calmed me. I would smush my cheeks into the warmth of his chest and once more, I inhaled the vanilla and orange that proved to be the most familiar scent I can identify with to this day.

Back in the kitchen, Papa would make his famous chicken adobo, but over the last year, I noticed that one thing was always missing from our lunch dishes: rolls of lumpia. That was her job, after all. And I hadn’t had those since last summer. I missed them. Papa missed her.

Once again, he was quiet as he chewed his chicken. I stirred mine into my rice. My meals were always so disproportionate – far more rice than protein. I had a feeling Papa felt a little disproportionate, too. I did my best to equal whatever was missing; but I think I fell a little short. Figuratively and literally.

I wandered down the hall after lunch, my belly full, into Papa’s bedroom. There sat his cologne, and next to it, a half-empty bottle of her perfume. Along with her bath salts and still in the closet were her lace nightgowns that she had always let me wear even though they were ten sizes too big for me. I would parade down that hall as if I were a princess. And Papa had always treated me like such. Through all of my sashays and twirls, he would applaud, and that honey-colored handkerchief would always remain seated in his pocket. Now whenever I tried to amuse him, the handkerchief would always make a guest appearance. Once again, at the corner of his eyes. Stable, calm, quiet – strong. That’s how he wanted me to see him. That’s what he wanted to be. That’s what she made him.

He placed the record on the player once more. The final time for today. Two times and that would be all. And so I adorned a lace nightgown, spun down the hallway, and the lyrical tune went. This was our tradition. Mine and Papa’s. For the last year. All alone I gaze at the stars, at the stars, dreaming of my love far away… I heard him sing. And then I noticed him out of the corner of my eye. By their dresser. He was softly touching the outline of a frame, the glass that held their wedding picture. She was adorned in white lace; he was looking studly in his tuxedo. And he seemed so happy. The creases by his eyes, while not permanent back then, lit up his face. A wide smile that matched his brown eyes. Full of hope for the future. Full of hope for the woman beside him. Has it really only been a year? I heard him whisper to the picture. To her. And time goes by so slowly, the record played.

His face reflected against the portrait. His well-worn face alongside her youthful one. A drop of water slid down the glass, tracing the bodice of her dress and settling into the left corner of the frame. And just this once, Papa couldn’t reach his handkerchief in time.

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